It’s a warm summer night and a homeowner has phoned 911 to report a burglary. The homeowner says the burglar was wearing a mask, sweatshirt, and was carrying a bag. The homeowner reports a missing DVD player his wife’s necklaces.
Minutes later a police officer observes a man running just two blocks from the homeowner’s address. The man is wearing a dark sweatshirt and sweatpants, there is mud on his pants and shoes, and he has a bag over his shoulder. The officer now has reasonable suspicion to stop and identify this person. However, there is not yet enough evidence (probable cause) to make an arrest.
The officer stops and questions the man and learns that he does not live in the area. The officer observes that the man is visibly nervous and is sweating. The officer looks inside the bag and sees electronics and jewelry. The officer now has probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and arrests the man.
A grand jury is later presented with the case. If they believe that there is probable cause cause, then they will indict the case and send it to the district court.
In the district court, a jury is empaneled to hear the evidence. To convict, the prosecutor must present enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Burden of proof is essentially the amount of proof needed to prove something. The amount of proof changes depending on the type of case. For example, to convict someone of a criminal offense and strip them of their freedom, you must have proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the most proof required in any legal case—as it should be.
On the other hand, for a civil case where money is at issue, you need a “preponderance” of the evidence. This is essentially enough evidence to tip the scales of justice only slightly. Put another way, you will have a preponderance of the evidence if you have 51% of the evidence and the other side has 49%.
In between criminal and civil cases is “clear and convincing evidence”. This is the amount of proof needed in child custody cases. It’s less than the proof needed to take someone’s freedom away, but more than needed to win a money judgment against someone.
Attorneys sometimes glaze over certain terms without making sure you fully understand them. “Burden of proof” is one of those, and it will undoubtedly arise during your case. This is one phrase that you must understand because can change depending on the type of case or even the proceeding. The following is a brief overview of burdens of proof.
Criminal cases are more complicated
Criminal cases have three standards of proof: reasonable suspicion, probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt.
Reasonable suspicion is the amount of evidence an officer needs to stop someone on the street and ask them questions. For this, the officer must be able to articulate that a person has been, is, or is about to commit a crime.
Probable cause is the amount of evidence an officer needs to make an arrest. This means that the officer must have probable cause, which is a reasonable belief that the person has committed a crime. Probable cause is not enough evidence to convict. It is only the amount of evidence needed to make an arrest. Probable cause is also the amount of evidence that a grand jury needs to indict a case. This is why many cases are indicted, but fewer are able to be proven to a jury.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the amount of evidence a prosecutor must present to a jury to obtain a conviction at trial.
An indictment tells you what you have been charged with. It is presented to a jury at the start of a trial to let them know what the prosecutor must prove. It is not evidence; it is nothing more than a piece of paper.
For one thing, grand juries may sit for longer. In the federal system, a grand jury can sit for up to 36 months, although it doesn’t have to sit that long. The court that swears in a new grand jury can extend its term in 6-month increments, for a total of 36 months, but a federal grand jury may only sit for 18 months or so. State grand juries sit for varying terms.
Grand jury proceedings are conducted in secret, and the defense does not have an opportunity to present witnesses, cross-examine the prosecutor’s witnesses, or present evidence that rebuts the prosecutor’s theory of the case. Trial juries, on the other hand, hear from the defense and can make an informed decision.
The most important difference between the two is that a grand jury decides if someone should be charged, but a trial jury decides if someone is guilty. For this, a grand jury only needs probable cause to return an indictment. On the other hand, a trial jury must have proof beyond a reasonable doubt to return a guilty verdict. This means that the standard is MUCH higher for a trial jury. Jokes such as, “A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich” are made in response to the low amount of evidence a grand jury needs to return an indictment.
A grand jury is a group of people that are selected and sworn in by a court, just like jurors that are chosen to serve on a trial jury. In fact, the grand jurors are usually chosen from the same pool of people that provide trial jurors: A judge selects and swears in a grand jury, just like judges select and swear in trial juries.
When the grand jury meets, a prosecutor will present a case, and the jurors will decide whether there is probable cause. If there is probable cause, they return an indictment. If they find that there is not probable cause, the case ends.